"On our last record, we focused a lot on some world issues," Fit for a King frontman Ryan Kirby says. "But this record focuses a lot on personal struggles."
The Dallas, Texas, quartet's previous album, 2016's Deathgrip, was a burly dose of expansive Aughts-styled metalcore, except the band often flipped the sing/scream script by featuring clean verses and furious choruses, instead of the more common opposite structure. A simple tweak, but the results were sometimes startling, as was the intensity of the subject matter and its delivery. Seething tracks like "Dead Memory," which featured a guest shot from August Burns Red's Jake Luhrs, is lyrically about abandonment and, specifically, how Kirby's wife's father left the family when she was a child. Four days after the 2015 terrorist attacks at the Le Bataclan concert venue in Paris, the band wrote the raging single "Pissed Off" — an impassioned statement of being fed up with killing and violence.
Yet, as emotional and cathartic as Deathgrip was for the band, the metalcore group's upcoming fifth album, Dark Skies — due September 14th via Solid State Records — is clearly even more personal, as Kirby suggests. Over the five singles released in advance of the LP, the group — which also includes guitarist Bobby Lynge, bassist Ryan "Tuck" O'Leary and drummer Jared Easterling — takes on anxiety, depression, the ills of social media, and how politics have divided people who might otherwise be friends or at least civil to reach other. Fit for a King have also addressed, on the song "Oblivion," a theme that the group has never really explicitly written about in their songs before: the band members' Christian faith.
We recently caught up with Kirby on a day off between tours to talk about mental health, how he's "the grim reaper of song parts," what role Slipknot played in the new album, and how a band full of Christians ended up being protested by other Christians.
WHY IS THIS THE MOST PERSONAL ALBUM YOU HAVE EVER WRITTEN?
RYAN KIRBY "Backbreaker" touches on the social anxiety that used to just cripple me. It rears its head occasionally still, as weird as that sounds for somebody that goes onstage with confidence. But I always tell people it's easy to go onstage when everyone likes your band. It's a lot harder whenever you're starting out and nobody knows who you are and you're not the cool guy in the room.
And "When Everything Means Nothing," Tuck actually had a lot to do with the lyrics on that. It really reflects on looking at other people's "perfect" lives on the internet and it really bums you out because you're like, "Man, my life sucks. This guy has been going to the beach every weekend" and doing that hand-holding picture with his girlfriend. [Laughs] "Engraved," is basically a song begging God to show you your purpose because you feel like your life's not going anywhere. You feel useless. And there's been a lot of moments in my life where I felt that way. So it's definitely a really personal record.
"ENGRAVED" REFERENCES A HIGHER POWER, BUT WHY DID YOU FEEL LIKE YOU WERE STRUGGLING FOR A PURPOSE?
We were all dirt poor and no one was coming to our shows. I had this feeling I'm not where I'm supposed to be right now because my life sucks. I love playing music, but you can only love it so much when your bank account has eight cents in it. And you get older and your priorities change. I almost quit the band in [Las] Vegas in 2012 because it was after a really bad show and I had just lost some money, not gambling, just lost it out of my wallet. That was just, like, all right, I'm tired of it, I don't want to tour anymore. Then after a lot of prayer and a lot of self-reflection, I was like, I need to tough it out a little longer. Just that little longer, two weeks later, we got signed. Things started rolling and I said, "I'm going to take things in stride." Now we're here. Things just kept getting better, and now I'm in a band and able to have a normal life when I'm at home and I'm married. So I want people to know that sometimes it's OK and normal to be totally lost. Sometimes it takes a lot of self-reflection and prayer — if that's what you are into. Not everyone's going to want to pray, not everyone's a Christian. But I think even without that, you can really reflect a lot on what you really want in life and you ask yourself, "Am I trying as hard as I can, or am I giving up too easily?"
YOU MENTIONED THAT "BACKBREAKER" CAME FROM ANXIETY ISSUES YOU'VE DEALT WITH. HOW DO YOU MANAGE YOUR ANXIETY TODAY?
To give some context to how bad it was when I first started playing shows which I was 14 years old, I had my back turned to the crowd the entire show because I was the biggest nervous wreck. I was the one who never wanted to even raise my hand in class because it would mean I had to speak and people would look at me. But honestly, the thing that really helped me overcome it was just like going for it. Over time it got better. It took years to feel comfortable. You really just have to put yourself out there and tell yourself at the end of the day, these people aren't going to be nearly as critical of you as you are being of yourself. Because I would always look at myself and say, "Oh, my hair looks stupid. I dress dumb. People are going to think my voice sounds weird." The average person is not thinking nearly that much about you.
RIGHT. BEING OVERLY CRITICAL OF YOURSELF CAN EAT AWAY AT YOU. LOOKING AT THE LYRICS OF THE RECORD AS A WHOLE, "HOPELESS" AND "DARKNESS" REALLY STAND OUT. IS DEPRESSION SOMETHING YOU'VE STRUGGLED WITH, AS WELL?
Yeah. I would never say I was to a point where I was suicidal, but definitely anxiety and depression. I think a lot of times anxiety and depression go hand in hand because being overly anxious, it makes you not feel great about yourself a lot. I know there's no instant cure for depression or else everyone would want it. But I think you have to want it to go away, like, truly you want to not be depressed. That's not going to change it immediately. It can take years, but I think years of training your mind and think positively over time and take each day as good as you can, hopefully each day gets easier. Even if it takes five years for you to finally say, "I'm fine now." So I think a lot of people look at the grand scheme seem really defeated and it feeds into the depression — I know it did for me. But like I said, you just have to go for it. It may not happen immediately because when I was 14 to 20, I was still crazy awkward. Even when I was 21, the band even had a talk with me, like, "Hey, you really need to work on how you're acting onstage because it's kind of awkward." I'm 27 now. But it took five years of me to think, Go for it. That's how I faced a lot of my depression, too. Like, I just need to try to find the happy, the silver lining even if it's super small.
YOU MENTIONED HOW YOU FELT AWKWARD AND THE BAND TALKING TO YOU ABOUT IT FIVE YEARS AGO. IN "TOWER OF PAIN," THE REFRAIN MENTIONS "26 YEARS." IS THAT RELATED IN ANY WAY?
That song is actually about Bob, our guitarist — he's 26. He wrote the chorus of the song and then I wrote everything around it so when he hears it he can relate to it himself. I mean, we are the same age, so that worked out. But that song is him struggling with the concept of religion and hell, because he's like, "I don't want to believe in something that's going to send all my friends to hell."
I turned the song into to facing the trials of life. The tower represents life and life is going to be painful. There's gonna be a lot of struggle and a lot of times you're doubting yourself. But you have to be willing to climb it and be willing to go for it. Like, it goes back to the whole you have to want to be better for healing to begin because it's so much easier to dig the hole deeper than the climb out of it.
I've been trying to preach to people, especially fans that are suffering with depression, a message of you can only stress about what you can control. For example, one of our fan's dad had passed away, and I am fortunate to still have my dad. So I can't pretend to understand how he's feeling. But the only advice I could give to him was nothing will change what happened, but you can change the memory and how you carry on his memory. And it's a reflection of your dad, how you handle the situation. That seemed to help him. I check in on him every now and then, he seems to be doing well. Like I said, there's no cure, but I think that all starts with the right thinking. You may never heal completely, but you learn to cope with it. It can be overwhelming and a lot of it happens fast and it is too much to handle on your own. But I always preach you need a good support system even when things are going great.
ABSOLUTELY, THAT'S IMPORTANT. YOU MENTIONED BEFORE WORKING WITH TUCK ON "WHEN EVERYTHING MEANS NOTHING," WHICH IS ABOUT THE EFFECT OF SEEING PEOPLE'S CURATED "PERFECT" LIVES ON SOCIAL MEDIA. HOW DID YOU TWO COLLABORATE ON THE SONG?
Tuck came off with the beginning lyrics and the whole chorus and "I was born in the rain." So he really came up with the premise of it and it really inspired the verse lyrics. I'd say we collab mainly on lyrics. Usually, we have a writing process where we let Bob do his thing and then we'll jump in. I'll listen from a distance and then jump in if I don't like it. I'm "the grim reaper of song parts," is what he calls me. [Laughs] Like, if he sees me walk into the room, he thinks I don't like something. But, one time, for a twist, I opened the door and he's like, "Oh, you don't like it." No, actually, I like it. [Laughs]
WAS ONE OF THOSE PARTS "ANTHEM OF THE DEFEATED"? BECAUSE THE BEGINNING OF THAT SONG IS EXTREMELY DIFFERENT FOR YOU GUYS, WITH AN ALMOST NU-METAL SOUND.
That one, I was the one who wrote the song in my head when we were in Europe. I was like, "I want to write a song. Bear with me, it's going to be weird." I really like Slipknot and we were listening to them, but not for lyrical inspiration. It let me do like a different style of vocal for a song and it was fun.
ANOTHER TRACK I WANTED TO TALK ABOUT WAS "THE PRICE OF AGONY." IT HAS TO DO WITH THE POLITICAL DIVIDE IN AMERICA. THE LYRICS ARE "HOLDING ON TO WHAT WE KNOW/TOO PROUD TO CHANGE/TOO SCARED TO GROW." THE MESSAGE SEEMS TO BE, "STOP BEING SO AGGRESSIVE AND LISTEN TO EACH OTHER, AS OPPOSED TO BLINDLY HATING X OR Y." WAS THAT WHAT YOU WERE THINKING?
You're correct. As somebody who thinks there's ridiculousness on both sides, especially in the election, I was like, "These are the two people?" I thought they were both awful. I noticed people were threatening each other, like, if somebody supported Hillary [Clinton], somebody supported [Donald] Trump, they were at each other's throats constantly. I was like, "It's OK if you don't agree. Geez." I think most people, in general, politics aside, would get along with each other and there's evidence of that. I see it on tour because people on tour have no choice but to get to know each other. And I've seen someone who's pro-life and pro-choice have a civil conversation after they become friends.
But if you say anything on the Internet, if you said, I'm pro-life or pro-choice, you're just going to get slaughtered by a million Twitter people. It's just a team sport now and it's really annoying. I think that's dividing people a lot because they're like, "Wait, is it an R or a D next to their name?"
WHAT ABOUT "YOUTH | DIVISION"? THE LYRICS GO, "BRING ME BACK TO A TIME WHERE I WASN'T SO LET DOWN." WHAT TIME IN YOUR LIFE ARE YOU REFERENCING?
I talked to everyone in the band about it and we've all really had moments where we miss the innocence of youth and what comes with it. Like when you're a kid, it's so much less common for you to just be bummed with the world. You're bummed because your friend didn't call you or you're grounded. So it's just a song about kind of dwelling in that. But then the chorus is everyone grows up, don't dwell and be sad because it's the past. You really don't appreciate the innocence and the lack of responsibility when you're a kid.
I THINK A LOT OF PEOPLE GO THROUGH LIKE A QUARTER-LIFE CRISIS. DID YOU?
Pretty much. I wouldn't say crisis, but I was definitely talking constantly about, "Man, I miss when I was 16." Then you have Twitter reminding you every day about something from your childhood. Razor scooters.
UGH, IT'S GONNA HIT YOUR ANKLE AND IT HURTS LIKE NO OTHER.
Exactly! You have to skip it! I missed being 14 and me and my friends would ride bikes to a grocery store to get candy. Just simple things you take for granted. You will also miss the metabolism.
[LAUGHS] RIGHT! WELL, ONE FINAL SONG I WANTED TO TALK ABOUT IS "OBLIVION" …
Yeah. We don't normally get outwardly Christian. That's why I hesitate to say we're a "Christian band" because I'd say eight out of 10 of our songs don't really have that there. Maybe a Christian undertone, like you said — it'd be like me talking to a higher power. But "Oblivion" is a song about a man who has done horrendous things and he's just desperate for forgiveness. The chorus is "Tell me I won't be forgotten." People his whole life told him God forgives you and he's saying, "Well, I hope he doesn't forget me when he's forgiving everyone else." I think forgiveness comes to anybody who's genuinely seeking forgiveness, not somebody who just says it to look good. There's people that apologize, but, no, you're just apologizing because you got caught. So this is real, like somebody who is truly repentant.
THAT'S EXACTLY WHY I WANTED TO TALK ABOUT THAT SONG. I THINK FIT FOR A KING FUNCTION A LOT LIKE AUGUST BURNS RED — AS A FAN, YOU MIGHT NOTICE SOME CHRISTIAN THEMES OR YOU DON'T, AND SOME PEOPLE HAVE NO IDEA ABOUT YOUR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS. BUT IN "OBLIVION," THERE'S NO HIDING IT. THAT BEING SAID, I KNOW SAYING YOU'RE A RELIGIOUS BAND CAN CAUSE CONTROVERSY.
Ohhhh yeah. We've been there with Halloween.
Our drummer wore wear a clown mask on Halloween of 2013 and we posted a picture of it, "Happy Halloween," pretty normal. And we had probably 30 Christians saying, "We're not listening to your band — you celebrate a pagan holiday." It's like, why do you think people have such a bad view of what a Christian is? It's because people like that. Not to mention all the protesters outside our shows.
We've had protesters outside of our shows trying to convince kids not to come because it's devil music. Like, the devil is using us to indoctrinate them. Again, what does that say to these 16-year-olds waiting in line about Christianity?
WERE THEY PROTESTING SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU'RE A METAL/HARDCORE BAND?
AND THEY DON'T EVEN REALIZE THAT YOU'RE A CHRISTIAN.
I guess not. I've had some say it can't work — "the devil is deceiving you and using you." It's like, awesome, you're a really cool person.
WHAT IF GOD IS A METAL FAN?
Maybe God uses metal to reach some people that wouldn't normally even give it a chance.
RIGHT, BUT THERE'S ALSO PEOPLE WHO AREN'T GOING TO LISTEN TO YOUR BAND BECAUSE OF YOUR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.
It definitely happens. We also get a lot of crap from Christians like, "Why wouldn't you preach on stage? God gave you a platform." I'm like, "Because it's not on my heart to say anything. Would you feel better if I went scripted something? And I wasn't genuine? And we're paid to play music. Half the crowd or more is not even Christian. Would you prefer me to push them away and just preach to the choir?" I never want to be the person that's like, "All right, here's where we preach for five minutes. I don't really have anything to say, but I'll just do my generic bill about stuff." If you don't have a gift for it, it's disingenuous at that point. I don't think you can script heavy topics like mental disorders. It needs to be from your heart.